Charles G Sellers, historian who was troubled by the post-war consensus, dies at 98

Charles G. Sellers, a historian whose work helped overturn the post-war consensus in early 19th-century America that democracy and capitalism developed together, showing that in fact they were more often at odds, said Thursday at Berkeley. , died at his home in California. He was 98 years old.

His wife, historian and philosopher Caroline Merchant, confirmed the death.

The son of a Carolina farm boy turned oil executive, Dr. The Sellers drew inspiration from his family’s rise to material wealth, even as he idealized life – and America’s – overtook him and reduced to a competitive, commodity capitalist lifestyle. . At a conference in 1994, he said, “Capitalism tends to commodity and exploit all life, I draw conclusions from my life and learn whatever I can.”

Such language was often referred to by Dr. Sellers as Marxist. He was not one, but he was a fanatic in both his writing and his politics—particularly during the 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley, where he spent most of his career.

He was best known for his book “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846”, published in 1991, in which he argued that the rapid expansion of capital and industry during that period did more than create a new economy. done more; It changed everything, including the way people worshiped, slept, and even had sex.

Such changes, he said, were largely unwanted, and the passionate reaction of most Americans was consolidated in the rise of Andrew Jackson, who, as president, took over the coastal elite, most famously the Second Bank of the United States in 1832. in his veto.

Dr. Sellers opposed Jackson’s pro-slavery sentiment and Indian expulsion policies. But he argued that the primary object of Jacksonian hatred was not black people or Native Americans, but capitalism and its allies. He also showed that by the end of his second term, Jackson’s movement, torn by internal contradictions and co-opted by wealthy interests, had mostly collapsed.

“He saw the Jacksonian as the last great expression of a democratic sensibility that had been overthrown by a capitalist bourgeois sensibility,” said Sean Willentz, a historian at Princeton.The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln(2005), further developed many of the themes of Dr. Sellers’ book.

The impact of the book was profound, at least in academic history. A 1994 conference in London was dedicated to it, and the concept of market revolution has become a definite part of the sector’s firm.

Historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, “It was the sellers’ thesis that started a thousand dissertations.” “Evidence of market revolution seemed to be everywhere; it seemed to explain everything.”

Charles Grier Sellers Jr. was born on September 9, 1923, in Charlotte, NC. His father, whose ancestor Dr. Sellers, later described as a “two-mule farmer”, had moved to town as a young man to attend business school, and was a student at Standard Oil by the time the younger Charles was born. growing rapidly as an executive. Charles’ mother, Cora Irene (Templeton) Sellers, worked for a church society that supported missionaries.

Charles’s parents were strict Presbyterians, and although he later rejected religion, it colored his childhood and influenced his later commitment to progressive causes. As a teenager, Charles became interested in civil rights; He later remembered attending a meeting of the NAACP, at which he was one of only a few white people out of hundreds of black attendees.

He studied history at Harvard, but he delayed his graduation until 1947 to join the military. He later returned to North Carolina and earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1950. He taught at the University of Maryland and Princeton before moving to Berkeley in 1958. He remained there until his retirement in 1990.

Dr. Sellers’ first marriage, to Evelyn Smart, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Nancy Snow. Along with his wife, he is survived by his brother, Philip; her sons, Greer and Stein; his daughter, Janet; and two grandchildren.

One of the first things Dr. Sellers did upon arriving at Berkeley was to join the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. While working with the chapter, he fought against housing and job discrimination around Berkeley, and in 1961 he traveled with a contingent to the Mississippi to support the Freedom Riders. Dr. Sellers was arrested, but released with a suspended sentence.

In 1964 he was one of the first and most vocal faculty members to support the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, which resisted efforts by the administration to curtail campus activism.

His involvement began when he saw one of his colleagues arrested during a protest and sitting in a police car. Immediately, Dr. Sellers was around the car for hours with several students.

He remembered that he was sitting on top of the car when another colleague passed by.

“Charles, what are you doing there?” asked his colleague.

“What are you doing down there, Waldo?” Dr. Sellers responded by interpreting a quote from his hero, Henry David Thoreau, who was imprisoned for not paying taxes as a protest against slavery and the war against Mexico. (“Waldo” refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Thoreau in prison.)

Dr. Sellers’ radicalism won him some friends among the faculty, but the soft-spoken Southerner became an inspiration to Berkeley’s more fierce students. He introduced Malcolm X when he came to speak on campus, and he later spoke to a crowd of 7,000 at an anti-Vietnam War rally.

His activism did not hinder his scholarship. During the 1960s he served as President James K. Polk’s three-book biography, the second of which, “James K. Polk, Continentalist: 1843–1846” (1967), won the prestigious Bancroft Prize.

Dr. Sellers spent the next two decades working on “Market Revolution”, which he did not publish until a year after his retirement.

The book nonetheless evokes the counterculture of the 1960s—in its portrayal of a pre-capitalist America in communal living and free love, and in its rejection of the work of post-war academic historians, who wrote Dr. Sellers said, tried to hide the reality of the class. The struggle behind the scenes of democratic consensus in early America.

“I sounded the alarm when historians purged the class consciousness and armed the United States for the Cold War,” he said at a 1994 conference in London. “By their consent the mythology of democratic capitalism purged the egalitarian meaning from democracy, while suppressing exploitative capital in democratic garb.”

“Market Revolution” made waves even before publication. It was commissioned as a part of the Oxford History of the United States series, but the editor of that series, C. Van Woodward – likewise a liberal, Southern historian who had trained at Chapel Hill – dismissed it as too critical and pessimistic. American History.

Oxford University Press eventually published the book, but out of series. It garnered intense praise, but it also generated extreme criticism – historian Daniel Walker Howe, who wrote Dr. Sellers, wrote an entire book, “What God Wrote: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848” (2005), which many saw as a direct criticism of Dr. Sellers’ work. .

“That taste from the 1960s about ‘The Market Revolution’ bothers a lot of people,” Pennsylvania State University historian Amy S. Greenberg said in an interview. “But he is a writer as much as a historian, and the picture he is painting is the ideal of the time.”

Although he did extensive research for the third volume of his Polk biography, Dr. Sellers never completed it. Instead, several years ago she gave Dr. Greenberg her large notes, which she would write “Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polki“(2019).

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